Can the Save Our Sequoias Act Match Up to Its Name?
Dozens of conservation groups push back against a pending forestry bill
As the Washburn Fire last month threatened to scorch the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, discussions about how to protect the iconic trees heated up. While most people agree that the trees are treasured monuments that need to be preserved, there is considerable disagreement about how best to do that. Conservation groups are now pushing back against proposed federal legislation that, they say, would do more harm than good.
On July 22, the US Forest Service announced plans to start emergency fuel reduction treatments across 13,377 acres in Sequoia National Forest and Sierra National Forest, just south of Yosemite National Park, where the Washburn Fire burned through nearly 5,000 acres in July. As part of the plan, the Forest Service will conduct numerous measures to keep high-intensity fires at bay, including thinning, mechanical removal of trees, and applying a flame retardant to green stumps.
The emergency plan follows last month’s introduction of a bill in Congress that would allocate $325 million over 10 years to similar projects throughout Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Yosemite National Park, and some Bureau of Land Management territories. Introduced in the House at the end of June, the bill currently has 22 Republican and 22 Democrat cosponsors. In addition, environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Save the Redwoods have joined industry groups like Associated California Loggers and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions to support the bill.
But dozens of conservation groups—including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biodiversity—warn that the bill overreaches and could set a dangerous precedent by allowing land managers to evade federal laws to fast-track fire abatement measures. The draft legislation waives a raft of federal environmental laws to speed up thinning and fuel reduction efforts. In doing so, environmental groups say, the law removes the guardrails meant to ensure fire-prevention projects are completed in a way that doesn’t threaten the environment.
Carla Cloer, the chair of the Sierra Club Sequoia Task Force, is one of the people worried about the recent plans and the proposed legislation. For her, the idea that humans could do a better job than millions of years of evolution is unthinkable.
“The groves are being restored by the only way possible, which is natural seedlings,” Cloer says. “For humans to think that they're gonna go in and dig a hole and build a little berm … and stomp all over the natural seedlings coming up … and think they can put in a tree that is better situated than these millions of seedlings, some of which have to be in a perfect place—it's just hubris.”
The Save Our Sequoias Act
In Yosemite National Park, one thing that has helped keep damage to the Mariposa Grove to a minimum is 50 years of prescribed fires, says park biologist Garrett Dickman. Treatments dating back to 1972 helped firefighters steer the Washburn Fire away from the grove and keep its intensity at lower levels. By the end of July, the fire was nearly 90 percent contained.
Just as fires started to spread across parts of California earlier this summer, Representative Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who is the minority leader in the House, and Scott Peters, a Democrat from San Diego, introduced their Save Our Sequoias Act. Since then, they’ve ramped up their campaign to gain support for the bill.
In addition to providing millions of dollars in funding, the bill, if it becomes law, would codify a management partnership between state, federal, and private entities called the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition. This governing body would submit an assessment of priority areas, called “protection projects,” based on threats to sequoia groves.
Examples of possible threats include insects, drought, and fire. If either endangers sequoia groves, Congress would be authorized to declare an emergency response. The areas selected by the coalition would then be targeted for thinning, fuel reduction, prescribed fire, and the removal of trees—dead ones, dying ones, and even living ones that pose a hazard.
SOS? Not so much.
Many of the largest conservation groups in the country oppose the Save Our Sequoias Act, and there’s one section in particular that leaves them bristling. About halfway through the bill, there’s language that would allow the agencies to bypass several crucial environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Protection Act, and National Historic Preservation Act. The bill would also amend the Wilderness Act to allow land managers to replant trees across public lands. Additionally, the bill would exempt the proposed sequoia coalition from the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which emphasizes public involvement.
Together, these laws help protect America’s natural world by ensuring development projects are conducted transparently and are based on the best scientific data.
Last month, more than 80 groups sent Congress a letter opposing the legislation. Among many other groups, the signers include Earthjustice, the League of Conservation Voters, and Green Latinos. They say that the proposals in this bill could do more harm than good by encouraging logging in areas where logging should never be permitted. Many of the coordination efforts outlined in the bill, they say, are already a part of the federal consultation process.
“Giant sequoias are often in NPS or other conservation-managed land and are one of the most fire-adapted species on Earth,” the letter reads. “The fact that these trees are experiencing such high mortality is directly related to climate change and fire suppression, and there is already active management occurring on these lands.”
In addition to fast-tracking decisions, the bill would create a “categorical exclusion” rule that would allow federal agencies to skip environmental assessments and environmental impact statements, which outline measures to reduce environmental damage, when reforesting areas. Federal agencies would also be able to skip the consultation process that is required under the Endangered Species Act.
Bart Johnsen-Harris is a senior government relations representative at Defenders of Wildlife, one of the conservation groups that signed on to the letter. He says that in addition to allowing land managers to shirk laws, the bill could provide a route to evading these laws in forests around the country.
“We absolutely do advocate for prescribed burning and certain kinds of thinning,” says Johnsen-Harris. “But when you get about halfway through the bill, you see these extreme waivers for the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, that are limited in scope in that they only apply to geography in California. But for a lobbyist like me who has been working on this stuff for a while, it's pretty clear that this is a grab at trying to create a precedent.”
Sequoias like fire
While the relationship between sequoias and fire can be complicated, says Kristen Shive, a fire ecologist soon joining UC Berkeley's Cooperative Extension program who has worked among the trees for nearly 20 years, scientists now know that this species of tree is adapted to fire. But today’s fires are different, she says, and historical records help tell us why.
“The way we understand fire history is that scientists look at tree rings. They can date those tree rings because trees put on one ring of growth each year. So that gives us a sense of just how frequent fires were historically in those ecosystems. And what they found was patterns were incredibly frequent,” Shive says. “They were very patchy. You could have fire in any one given grove every few years. At the individual tree level, fires went through there every 10 to 15 years.”
The cessation of Indigenous burning, combined with more than a century of fire suppression, stifled these natural fires. Some scientists believe the forests have reached unnaturally thick vegetation densities without that frequent burning. Combined with climate change, which has made conditions hotter and drier, the forests are now tinderboxes ready to burn.
Underscoring this is the fact that nearly 20 percent of all sequoia trees have died from fires in the past two years, says Yosemite biologist Dickman. In 2015, the Rough Fire killed about 100 trees in Kings Canyon National Park. In 2017, two fires killed an additional 120 trees.
“That is a wild departure from the times before,” Dickman says. “Twelve hundred years ago was the last hot, dry drought equivalent to 2012–2016; there've been many hot, dry droughts. And we know that some trees died in high severity fires, not very many. And then it's not until the 1980s that we find some trees died in high severity fires.”
Forest ecologist Chad Hanson, who advocates for the natural regeneration of trees and is a Sierra Club board member, says that the efforts to control fire in sequoia groves are an attempt by land managers to log in areas where it has previously been excluded. President Biden’s renewed focus on saving mature and old-growth trees has put new scrutiny on large-scale logging projects—leaving forest thinning under the guise of fire prevention as an easy way to justify taking out trees.
Hanson and Cloer say sequoia groves have flourished with newer fire regimes, and attempts to minimize fire in the groves are unnecessary. They say that sequoias have always lived with fire and have the scars to prove it: Many of the tallest trees display fire scars, in some cases extending 100 feet up the trunk.
Cloer argues that the fires are needed now just as they were in the past. Instead of edging sequoias closer to extinction, the fires have spawned a bloom in new seedling growth, she says. In areas where fires have burned through, she’s observed carpets of green sequoia seedlings sprouting.
“We have a public that just loves these trees. And so they all see images of the fire that races through these groves,” Cloer says. “They forget that most of the giant sequoias have huge fire scars on them, many of them are hollowed out by ancient fires, maybe repeated ancient fires.”
Climate change is the problem
Despite agreements over how best to protect the sequoias, federal scientists and conservation advocates agree that the high-intensity fires of today are a symptom of climate change. Instead of focusing on site-specific efforts that garner press and are expedient, leaders should focus on larger issues like climate change, conservation groups say.
Environmentalists say addressing the root problem, which is excess carbon emissions, would help restore entire ecosystems and would benefit society and the environment. In the meantime, advocates say, public policy should prioritize fire-safe buildings and keeping more housing development away from forested areas.
Tellingly, many of the sequoia groves that have experienced fire have shown signs of regeneration. New seedlings have emerged, and trees that were previously thought to be dead have sprouted new growth. With the Washburn Fire now largely contained, it would appear the famous groves of Yosemite will endure as they have for millennia.
The communities around the park might not fare so well. As the Washburn Fire smoldered, the Oak Fire had burned through more than 18,000 acres of Mariposa County, to the east of the Yosemite National Park. It is the largest fire in California this year. So far, approximately 3,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, and over 40 structures have been destroyed.
“Yes, we have a hotter and drier climate in the Sierras. And why?” Cloer asked. “It’s climate change. That is the emergency. The fires are the result of climate change.”